Nearly one century ago, a year full of inspiring, thrilling, sad and sordid events left Americans eyeing the future with a remarkable optimism.
In his critically acclaimed High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline (2004), Rasenberger demonstrated a knack for capturing the zeitgeist in a nation determined to grow, and his unique talent is on display again in his take on a year for which he makes a compelling case: More than any other in the 20th-century’s initial decade, 1908 portended America’s destiny. Wealth was obscenely concentrated, especially after a private capitalist, J.P. Morgan, almost single-handedly yanked Wall Street back from the brink of collapse. There was the assault on the North Pole by two Americans—one eventually lionized, one dismissed as deluded or worse—and Henry Ford introduced the Model T, a piece of technology viewed by Rasenberger as unsurpassed in its impact on American society until the atomic bomb. An ebullient Theodore Roosevelt sent a fleet of U.S. battleships around the world, and the Wright Brothers publicly demonstrated (one tragedy aside) that flight was not only possibly, but here to stay. Not to mention a baseball season that began its final week with a triple dead heat for the National League pennant. The author admits that much of his information has already been covered in previous books. The murder of architect Stanford White, seducer of Evelyn Nesbit, for instance, put the insanity defense on the map and is an irresistibly seamy tale. A full-blown race riot in Springfield, Ill., was the northern urban precursor for violence in decades to come. But Rasenberger’s talent lies in his ability to synchronously thread it all together, as the year unfolds, with random happenstances—some wistful or intriguing, others obscure. It may not be foolproof—some readers may find color and texture, others nagging digression—but it’s continually engaging.
An effective reach across time that is both poignant and entertaining.